The Panthers defense has allowed just 67 points combined over the past eight games.
With a plethora of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, it’s easy for people to sleep on the Monroe City defense.
The Panthers defense also started the season a step or two slower than the offense this season. Monroe City allowed 36 and 28 points in shootout wins over Clark County and Macon, respectively, to open the year.
Head coach David Kirby offered a simple explanation as to why the defense allowed such a high total of points.
“We just were not tackling very well,” the Panthers coach said. “So we really upped our attention to detail after that. Since then we have been pretty solid.”
In the eight games following the 64 points allowed in the first two weeks, the Panthers defense has given up 67 points total.
“We have really just continued to improve on our fundamentals week after week,” Kirby mentioned. “The kids are really focused and are playing fast. They all understand our game plans and are executing very well.”
Although the team gave up 41 points combined in back-to-back wins over conference rivals Centralia and Palmyra to wrap up the regular season, the defense stepped up when it needed to.
Against Centralia, defensive back Blake Hays made a crucial open-field tackle on fourth down to help shift momentum back to Monroe City.
The next week against Palmyra, with an outright conference championship on the line, the Monroe City defense made play after play in the second half to take control by the fourth quarter. Although Palmyra made a charge late, the play of the defense early in the second half set the tone.
“The Palmyra game was a great playoff-type atmosphere,” Kirby said. “Games like that make both teams involved better. We know we will need to stay sharp on our fundamentals and eliminate mental mistakes, but that game was a testament of how hard our kids are working.”
A trio of playmakers on the Panthers offense are also stalwarts of the defense.
Hays, Zach Osborn and Cole Pennewell account for 43 of the Panthers 50 offensive touchdowns this season. Hays and Osborn have three interceptions, while Pennewell leads the team with 50 solo tackles to go along with 30 more assisted.
“They are all just good football players,” Kirby said of his leaders. “I have had several people ask why they play offense, defense and special teams. The answer is simple, they are all the best at those positions. They love to compete and that allows them to play extremely well in all areas of the football field.”
Other key performers on the defense include Dawson Shively, who leads the team with four interceptions, and linemen Jon Saxbury, Michael Ryan, Brad Cheek, Max Hays, linebacker Nolan Pennewell and defensive back Nathan Mehrer. Saxbury leads the team with 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Another top defender who is often overlooked is linebacker Hunter Lilly.
“He has really come into his own as the season has progressed,” Kirby said. “He plays fast, tackles well and does a great job of being an all-around leader for our defensive unit.”
Aside from experience of getting to the state championship a season ago, in which the defense made a crucial stop in the state semifinals, Kirby mentioned what makes the defense so good is its attitude.
“They only know one way to play and that is hard,” he said. “They understand what we want to do and they play fast, physical and aggressive. All the kids just really like working hard and playing this game.”